Just because taking a swing at our swarming addiction to celebrity is a can’t-miss target, doesn’t make it any less pertinent. And just because we can lay a falsely prideful claim that, no, we don’t know what’s going on in the lives of the Kardashians, doesn’t make us any less culpable. There’s a line in Brandon Cronenberg’s sickly little debut Antiviral that stands as its central statement, and it is the film’s biggest takeaway. One character calls celebrity “a collaboration we choose to take part in”.
It’s a piercing statement because it rings true in a more openly direct way than other kinds of pot shots. Just because you don’t read tabloids, doesn’t mean you and I aren’t taking part in the collective. It pervades everywhere, through involvement in casual gossip and speculation, fandom, idolization, victimization and on and on. It’s not necessarily something to feel guilty about, as it’s out of our individual hands, but it is there. Antiviral posits what the next step is. What opportunity, if given, could serve as a new level of celebrity commodification? How to complete the connection and devotion people feel towards certain mega-stars?
In Antiviral, competing clinics harvest viruses and illnesses from celebrities and puts them on the market for those willing to pay for injections. From them to you: one degree of separation. It is a disturbingly intimate process, not to mention anything about the context of said shared fluids. It is ultimate marriage in devotion and masochism. The news is littered with the latest embarrassing celebrity snafu and all the characters are caught up in events not theirs. Even the clinic employees are not above the bullshit and their water-cooler substitution setting is the line to pick up various infection strands.
One employee is the cryptic freckle-faced Syd (Caleb Landry Jones), representing the Lucas Clinic. We soon learn he injects himself with viruses to smuggle them out and sell them on the black market to a man named Arvid (Joe Pingue). After a co-worker is arrested, he is sent to make a house call to one of the Clinic’s star contributors Hannah Geist who is looking to sell her latest illness. But when Syd takes a sample from the incapacitated Hannah, and decides to inject himself without knowing what it is, things get hairy. Soon word leaks that Hannah has died from said unidentified virus, making the now-infected Syd highly sought after.
This is the kind of debut where my interest lies more in the promise of Brandon Cronenberg’s future endeavors, rather than outright praise for his first effort. The ingenious concept gets him far, which strikes a balance between being amusingly outlandish and legitimately plausible. One detail that makes the idea feel entirely plausible is that it seems reserved for only the tippity-top superstars’ take part in these kinds of transactions. It brings to mind when Scarlett Johansson appeared on Jay Leno several years ago with a cold. She blew into a tissue which she then signed, and sold it for $5,300 that went to charity. Like I said: plausible. There are many other treats and insights into the habitual meat-market of celebrity culture, such as a literal meat market, skin grafting, copyright discussion and a machine that puts a distorted face onto viruses.
If the plot trajectory feels pedestrian and the characters empty ciphers, it’s because the focus is on an underworked tone. Since celebrity as an abstract is the name of the game, the characters don’t have discerning characteristics outside their immediate actions. They live and die by their clients and all conversations stem around them. The tone maintains an assuredness, but strikes a been-there done-that vibe of obvious clinical white non-color palettes and timed beats between sentences of dialogue. The body horror aspect, a type of horror that the young filmmaker’s father has commanded in the past, and a type that will always resonate with me, isn’t explored enough. Body horror gets its mileage out of the details of fleshly decay. Outside of a few hallucinatory images that stand out, the virus makes up a largely vague bodily takeover.
Thankfully, Caleb Landry Jones in the lead is exactly the kind of presence needed for a character that is a cipher more than anything else. He’s got the uncompromising stare and offbeat face of a Calvin Klein model. With his hunched posture, punctured cheekbones and pale unblinking canvas of a face, like a cross between Crispin Glover and Burn Gorman, Jones helps significantly to keep Antiviral afloat. He’s the kind of actor that wears ambiguity like a shadowy glove, diving into his role as smeared blood and disheveled hair replace stoic stateliness.
It all comes back to the “collaboration we choose to take part in”. Antiviral may not be able to capitalize on its potential through its unflappable commitment to an undercooked and somewhat obvious tonal monotony, but its ideas, lead actor and intermittent moments of merit carry it through a steady intrigue. More importantly, the question is what does Brandon Cronenberg have up his sleeve in the future? His debut convinced me to anticipate the answer.